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When you have a barrage of vague, seemingly unrelated symptoms—like fatigue, menstrual changes, weight gain and constipation—you might attribute the issues to getting older, having kids and dealing with life’s various stressors. You shouldn’t, though. Added up, these symptoms could signal an untreated thyroid disorder.
Roughly 25 million Americans have a thyroid disorder, notes Dr. Armand Krikorian of Cleveland's University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Women's Health, and women make up the majority. At the end of 2012, Dancing With the Stars host Brooke Burke-Charvet revealed she had thyroid cancer and underwent successful surgery to remove the gland after detecting a nodule in her neck, bringing attention to a problem so many docs and sufferers fail to identify.
Hypothyroidism is the primary condition to keep an eye out for, resulting when your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone to maintain tip-top shape. But why the tough catch? “The symptoms are really diverse,” says Atlanta, Ga.-based endocrinologist Dr. Scott Isaacs. “The thyroid affects processes throughout the whole body.” Basically, you could have extremely dry skin along with muscle aches, and just never connect the two.
An overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, isn't as common as underactive thyroid, according to the National Institutes of Health, but keep in mind those head-to-toe symptoms. Whereas hypothyroidism generally causes processes across the body to slow down, hyperthyroidism causes processes to speed up. Look for signals like weight loss, increased appetite, constant sweating, rapid heartbeat, more frequent bowel movements or feelings of anxiety.
Listening to your body is key for stopping the havoc. If left untreated, other problematic conditions can arise. “The serious issues are the effects the thyroid will have on the heart, blood pressure and cholesterol,” Isaacs says. “Early detection is really the best form of prevention.” And moms, you need to be most aware.
The 41-year-old Burke-Charvet, a mother of four, is a prime example of the demographic thyroid cancer tends to strike most often: women of childbearing age, under age 45. The medical community isn’t sure why this happens, but the numbers are staggering. In 2010, the disease was caught in 45,000 new patients, according to the American Cancer Society. Three out of four cases were in women, most younger than the majority of cancer sufferers, and the number continues to grow. Thyroid cancer is now the fifth most common cancer among women.
Women are far more likely to suffer from thyroid disorders than men anyway, but there are several female-specific risk factors you should remember based on your age group. Post-menopausal women are the largest demographic for hypothyroidism. If you’re near or over age 60, especially if you have a family history of thyroid problems, be particularly watchful of the symptoms, and tell your doctor if you’re experiencing any. Don’t immediately write them off as the bodily nuances of aging.
On the other end of the spectrum, young women have their own set of concerns. Pregnant women should be mindful of their thyroid, which can put both mom and baby at risk. “An untreated thyroid condition can result in an increased miscarriage rate and a higher bleeding risk,” Isaacs says. “This might be due to the hormones flooding the system during pregnancy.” Even post-birth, you’re not out of the woods. Women with newborns should also be careful of potential symptoms due to the increased risk of an inflamed thyroid after childbirth, called postpartum thyroiditis, likely to occur within the first year after pregnancy. At first, you may experience irritability, anxiety and heart palpitations, like with overactive thyroid. This may disappear in weeks or months, but for some women it develops into a case of hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid puts you at higher risk for thyroid cancer.
Hypothyroidism can increase your odds of developing cancer. Low levels of the thyroid hormone urges the organ to produce more thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) to make up lost ground. The high amount of TSH not only nudges the thyroid to produce more hormone, but also activates rapid growth of cancer cells.
How can you prevent a thyroid condition? You’ve got to catch it before it starts moving through your body undetected. Slow down and address any disconcerting symptoms, and then ask your doctor for a simple blood test to check your thyroid levels.
Also, self-check your neck for nodules every so often, as you would your breasts. If you note a suspicious lump, especially a growing one, ask your doc to feel for it. He can order an ultrasound to see what’s what. “If I know someone is planning on getting pregnant, I will measure the thyroid levels,” says Isaacs. “It isn’t a universal screening, but if you have family history, a goiter or enlarged nodule or a past thyroid problem, then you definitely need the test.”
Beyond that, there’s one outside factor you have partial control over to reduce your risk of cancer: radiation. The spike in radiation is a major reason for the increased number of cases in recent years, according to Isaacs. Imaging techniques like X-rays and CT scans are cumulative, so don’t leave the thyroid unprotected if you can avoid it. At the dentist, make sure you ask for a lead shield to cover your neck during X-rays. If you need a scan, ask about alternative methods of imaging, such as MRI, which don’t use radiation.
And although cancer is always a frightening word, be wary but not fearful. The silver lining is that you’re looking at one of the most curable diseases out there. If you stay watchful and proactive, according to the New York University Cancer Institute, more than 90 percent of all thyroid cancers can be cleared up completely with treatment.